All you need to know about the intensity of teenage crushes is captured in the looks of longing that doe-eyed Jimmy Mavrikes directs at Lukas James Miller in “Girlfriend,” the tenderly truehearted rock musical that seems primed for cult-hit status on Signature Theatre’s second stage.
Mavrikes’s Will and Miller’s Mike are high school seniors attracted to each other in a small town in Nebraska in the near-past, a time when cassette tapes were still a viable adolescent appliance and being gay in middle America tended to focus, even more so than today, an ingrained rage at vulnerable boys and girls who did not conceal their feelings.
Director Matthew Gardiner’s production has us eavesdrop adroitly on Will and Mike’s tentative courtship, courtesy of set designer Misha Kachman’s renderings of their bedrooms and, of course, the catchy music and lyrics of Matthew Sweet and story and dialogue by Todd Almond. The songwriter and book writer demonstrate both an ear for the rousing energy of circa-1990 pop music, and a sensitivity about the manner in which a pair of young men might find their way to each other in an unwelcoming environment.
As a happy bonus, the rock band accompanying the actors — made up of Britt Bonney on keyboard, Beth Cannon on guitar, Nicole Saphos on electric bass and Erika Johnson on drums — is integrated into the proceedings with an extra shot of inspiration. From behind a glass partition, of the kind you might find in a recording studio, the musicians perform something like a Greek backup chorus, occasionally adding their voices to some of the 90-minute show’s 10 songs. The permeability of that glass wall reinforces an idea about the organic level on which teenagers relate to their music, how the anthems of one’s youth sing in you, and around you, and for you.
If anything, you wish “Girlfriend,” which is partly based on Sweet’s 1990 album and was developed as a musical in California almost a decade ago, offered up more of those songs, especially as an audience seeks a bit more context for who Will and Mike are. Almond resorts on several occasions to having the musical’s pair of characters address the audience directly, and the device comes across as lazy. Moments arise in which you imagine the number that might have been added, here or there, to give the evening a tad more weight.
That feeling might also be a function of the depth of authenticity that Mavrikes and Miller bring to their assignments, for what Gardiner guides them to are close to ideal embodiments of the vicissitudes of furtive romance: the elation at dreamed-of connections becoming real; the fumbling attempts at sending out signals, and the mishaps that occur in trying to read them; the pleasure of first contact and the disappointment when the subsequent ones are not perfect.
Mavrikes’s lonely Will is the demonstrably gayer and less conditioned for conventional success of the two; Miller’s Mike is a college-bound athlete who is slower to acknowledge his sexuality, owing in part to his oppressive, backward-thinking father. But as “Girlfriend” would have it, Mike, programmed for alpha-male assertiveness, turns out to be the pursuer, and in the guise of the kind of hero you find on a Wheaties box, Miller becomes progressively more persuasive as Mike’s assurance as a romantic partner grows. There’s a refined symbiosis in the bond Miller forges with the thoroughly winning Mavrikes, who manages to convey humor and inner strength even when Will retreats into a defensive pout.
Both actors invest their singing with a joyful melodic confidence. Several of “Girlfriend’s” scenes take place, amusingly, in the car Mike parks at the local drive-in movie theater, where he and Will spend much of their summer together. This gives the characters a traditional teenage haunt in which their attraction can germinate and a useful platform — sometimes supplemented by the car radio — for some of the evening’s best songs. It’s a sweet happenstance that many of the melodies emanating from that car and this musical are grace notes.
Girlfriend, book by Todd Almond, music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Britt Bonney; set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Hickey. About 90 minutes. $40-$98. Through June 10 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org or 703-820-9771.